Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-DRC: Pantheon of National History Expands to Include Women

Juakali Kambale

KINSHASA, Jul 15 2004 (IPS) - For those largely unfamiliar with Congolese history, a list of people who have shaped the country’s past might include no more than two or three names. Patrice Lumumba and Mobutu Sese Seko would certainly feature; perhaps Laurent Kabila as well.

In years to come, however, the names of three Congolese women might become equally well-known. Beatrice Ndona Kimpavita, Marie-Clementine Anuarite Nangapeta and Sophie Lihau-Kanza were recently inducted into the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Pantheon of National History – a group of people who have made significant contributions to the country. These were the first women to be accorded this honour.

A bust of each of the women will be displayed in a building known as the Gallery of Memory, built in the capital – Kinshasa – to celebrate figures of importance in Congolese history.

Kimpavita, who lived from 1684 to 1706, has yet to achieve renown in the DRC. She has been admitted to the pantheon for her contribution to the fight against the slave trade during pre-colonial times.

For her efforts, Kimpavita was burned alive at the stake by Portuguese slave traders. The killing took place in what is now the city of Boma, located near a point on the Atlantic coast from which many of the slave ships bound for the Americas departed.

Marie-Clementine Nangapeta was a nun from Isiro, in the north-eastern part of the country. In 1964, she chose death at the point of a bayonet rather than be raped by followers of Pierre Mulele, a rebel leader active during the 1960s. Born in 1939, Sister Marie Clementine was made a saint of the Catholic Church in 1985 by Pope John Paul the Second – this during the pontiff’s visit to Kinshasa.

The third and most well-known member of the group, Sophie Lihau-Kanza, was an ardent campaigner for the rights of the handicapped.

Injuries incurred during a car accident in Paris had resulted in Lihau-Kanza herself becoming a paraplegic. After the accident, she left her job at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in Paris where she had represented her country, and traveled the world to champion the disabled.

Lihau-Kanza also served as a minister on several occasions in the government of Mobutu. She died five years ago, after suffering a heart attack at the age of 60.

“We’ve been waiting a long time for Congolese women to be recognized as heroes of our national history. Today, that wish has been fulfilled. We hope that this is just the first of many occasions, because it isn’t just men who deserve this honor,” Philippine Batudianga, a television producer at the state radio and television service, told IPS at a ceremony held Jun. 30 to mark the induction of the women into the pantheon.

But, it’s not only the Gallery of Memory that has been the exclusive preserve of men until now. Cast an eye at statues elsewhere in the country, and the chances are that these will also be of male leaders.

There are statues of Patrice Lumumba and Laurent Kabila in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, in southern DRC. (Lumumba was the first post-independence prime minister of the DRC – then known as the Republic of Congo.)

There are also statues of Mobutu, the infamously corrupt president who renamed the Congo Zaire, in the eastern town of Kamanyola – this to symbolize the army’s victory over Pierre Mulele and his followers in 1964. Similarly, the faces of Mobutu and Kabila are frequently visible along the main roads of Congolese cities.

At the unveiling of the busts of the three women, Culture Minister Pierrette Gene said they had challenged male supremacy in the Congo.

“These were simple women who challenged the…cultural limits that confined them, and showed that they could make their mark in the privileged world of men,” she noted.

Jun. 30 also marked the DRC’s 44th anniversary of independence from colonial rule, a point which inspired a certain bitterness amongst some.

“All we’ve done (since independence) is to go in circles,” said Etienne Tshisekedi, a veteran opposition figure, and president of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress.

“The fate of Congo today” he added, “is uncertain. The daily horrors we encounter have had a profound effect on us, and it is possible for the country to be swallowed up in barbarism and irreversible chaos.”

However, Tshisekedi also noted that the DRC could still “regain control of itself if a lasting peace and a unified vision of progress” could be found.

The party leader’s words come at a time when the atmosphere in the DRC is uncertain. Although a peace agreement to end five years of civil war in the east of the country was signed towards the end of 2002, recent weeks have seen the eastern town of Bukavu being temporarily seized by former rebels – and a failed coup attempt in Kinshasa.

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